“Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe”


At last one can really begin to get a feeling for the range of the Symbolist ethos. Janus-faced, it looked back to Romanticism and forward to Modernism, shuttling between worldliness and renunciation, religiosity and decadence, socialism and royalism, nostalgia and rupture, allegory and abstraction. This vast reexamination of Symbolism in the visual arts, organized by a team of curators under the direction of Jean Clair, was ambitious not just in its scale (some 600 objects by 189 artists) but in its inclusiveness in terms both of medium (not only painting, sculpture, and graphic art, but photography and the decorative arts as well) and geographical range.

The rub, however, is the sheer quantity of atrocious art that has had to be included. The problem is not with the curatorial selection, which is judicious. Rather it is that, while Symbolism in literature was an artistically positive development (to the extent that it is possible to render such across-the-board evaluations)—as it was for the decorative and graphic arts and, perhaps more surprisingly, photography—it was mostly a disaster for painting and sculpture. Much of the painting on view here, with its hackneyed and prurient imagery, its unearned stylistic excesses, might turn anyone into a knee-jerk Greenbergian, for it was an art strangled by its own literature.

Among the painters represented in any depth here—excepting James Ensor, whose macabre humor clearly jars with the Symbolist sensibility—there are only two whose work can be taken without considerable benefit of the doubt. One is Edvard Munch, whose still startlingly fluid canvases—quite unlike anything else of the time—glow incandescently, however dark in value, and whose painterly freedom in the face of fatalistic subject matter represents an absolute transcendence of form over “period” content. The other is the great Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff, Munch’s polar opposite, though Khnopff was possessed of a highly personal symbolic repertoire whose deployment at times seems prophetic of Surrealism. The disquieting tension of his pictures comes from their preternatural control, their quasi-photographic precision. The haunting quality of Khnopff’s landscapes and townscapes in particular comes from an ability to objectivize inwardness not so much through emblematic figures as through the atmosphere that suffuses them—a sort of dissolved Symbolism that brings us close to the realism and Impressionism that Symbolism professed to negate (Seurat exhibited with the Belgian Symbolists of the Salon des XX; he and Khnopff would make a revealing comparison). On the other hand, this exhibition makes it all too clear how the work of perhaps equally talen ted painters—whether as renowned as Paul Gauguin or Gustav Klimt or as obscure as the Pole Jacek Malczewski—was constrained by their thematic material. (Malczewski aside, the unusual quality of individual works by Polish artists like Joseph Mehoffer and Witold Wojtkiewicz suggests that Polish Symbolism in general ought to have a higher international profile.)

The problem, of course, is that, despite the call by theorists of Symbolism such as Emile Verhaeren for an art that would be “not demonstrative but suggestive,” few artists could see how to translate the literary themes of Symbolism into visual terms without resorting to a creaky and overstated Gothic machinery of mythic figures and rhetorical gestures, lyres and moonlight, skeletons, sphinxes, witches, and unicorns. A host of androgynous adolescents and femmes fatales immediately stamps these works with an incurable trashiness (not to mention an unmistakable misogyny).

The decorative arts were saved from the worst consequences of all this by their immunity to dramatic narrative, while the frankly illustrative function of printmaking paradoxically allowed it to slough off literary duty onto the accompanying text and concentrate on pure form, as is evident in Aubrey Beardsley’s work; the success of Symbolist (that is, pictorialist) photography is more difficult to explain, but perhaps has something to do with the always evident discord between the camera’s recording function and the more fanciful uses to which Symbolist photographers put it. It is this tension that seems so “postModern,” F. Holland Day and Frantisek Drtikol being kissing cousins to Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano.

It’s fitting that an exhibition on Symbolism include the early works of Klee and Kandinsky, Duchamp and Delaunay, among other notable Modernists. Symbolism might best be defined as that which Modernism meant to sweep aside, yet harbored in its heart. The controversy over how much weight to accord Piet Mondrian’s roots in theosophy is really about what to make of Symbolism; and the general impression that, in the recent Mondrian retrospective, historical obfuscation yielded esthetic illumination shows that a century later we have yet to settle accounts with the Symbolist moment.

Barry Schwabsky